Summer 2018 – In Review

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Summer is officially over. The leaves are crisping, the air has that unmistakable chill, and movie studios are releasing junk that would have been swallowed whole amidst the summer blockbusters, but would also crash and burn during awards season. So instead of watching The Nun or The Predator, let’s grab a pumpkin flavoured something and reminisce about the summer that was.

I won’t be covering any movies I’ve previously reviewed, though I’ll provide links to those at the bottom of this article. So, instead of Infinity War or that Han Solo movie you probably forgot existed before I reminded you of it just now, let’s start with the first of June and a little movie called:

Upgrade

The anti-blockbuster, this is the rare kind of movie that looks like it cost ten times what it actually did. It’s a stylish, mean, and unrelentingly brutal sci-fi actioner that recalls the works of Paul Verhoeven and John Carpenter. Set in the near future, Upgrade follows Grey Trace who, after his wife is murdered, ends up upgraded with an AI chip that enables him to unleash violent retribution on his wife’s killers. Is it possible that this conspiracy goes all the way to the top? While everything about it (Grey Trace – really?) sounds generic as hell, the movie rises above its pedantic underpinnings, and delivers continuously exciting and distinct action set-pieces, nice cinematography, and wry humour. At the very least, it’s a good way to tide one over until John Wick 3 comes out.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

While I’ve cooled on Infinity War since seeing it a second time (the part of my review where I call it a masterpiece will haunt me forever), I still think it’s an impressive feat, and the decision to end it on such a downer note is bold by blockbuster standards. Unfortunately, this downer note seems to have directly inspired Ant-Man and the Wasp to double down on Marvel’s usual MO, which is telling a story that continually reminds you there’s absolutely no reason for it to exist. The characters don’t change, nothing really happens, and the third act is a messy combination of low stakes, grimy CGI, and humour that aims for a chuckle and mostly misses. The more I see of the Marvel Universe the more each movie seems like a smaller and less significant piece in a puzzle I’m not sure I want to finish.

Sorry to Bother You

Here is a movie so chock full of ideas it’s in constant danger of imploding. The mere fact that it doesn’t would be impressive enough, but, like a juggler adding ball after ball, Boots Riley creates a whole that is substantially more than the some of its parts (even if a few balls get dropped along the way). At its core a satire about oppression and the tools we can use to fight it, Sorry to Bother You also takes the time to examine virtually every problem facing America today. While it stumbles in it’s overly simplistic depiction of television and social media, and probably could have stood a few more drafts of the screenplay, the majority of the film hits, and hits hard. The movie’s depiction of code-switching is particularly nuanced, and the truly bonkers finale succeeds in portraying the absurdity of capitalism, and its deadly serious repercussions. It’s also fiercely funny and features a dream team of diverse actors playing interesting characters. Watch it, and watch it again.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

I try to avoid phrases like “If you don’t like this movie you may be broken inside,” but if you don’t like this movie you may be broken inside. Taking a page from The Godfather: Part II (!), Here We Go Again is both prequel and sequel, detailing Donna’s time in Greece in the 70s, and modern-day Sophie’s struggles to continue the family legacy. Lily James plays young Donna and delivers probably my favourite performance of the year, sparkling with emotion, a zest for life, and a goodness so innate it makes me smile just thinking about it. Director Ol Parker injects a surprising amount of flair into the proceedings, and with clever digital effects creates the dreamlike sensation that both storylines are taking place concurrently. Largely ignoring the continuity of the first movie, this film exists as an entity all its own; a delightfully polished entertainment machine that all but dares you not to love it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The very definition of a summer movie, the absolutely epic Fallout attempts to answer the question: can anything kill Tom Cruise? Whether he’s plummeting towards the ground in a helicopter he’s piloting, plummeting towards the ground during a HALO jump, or plummeting towards the ground while falling from a helicopter, Cruise seems only to have the audience’s interests at heart. Luckily, director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to shoot and edit action so Tom Cruise’s terrifying daring-do actually looks as impressive as it is. The movie’s labyrinthine plot is merely a vehicle to justify why Tom Cruise is doing things like roaring down a Paris street on a motorcycle with no helmet, or breaking his ankle jumping across London rooftops. It all culminates in a final half-hour filled with enough tension, spectacle, humour, character moments, and madcap action to fill an entire movie. Mission: Impossible is one of the best franchises currently going, and Fallout may be its finest entry.

Christopher Robin

I would have trouble coming up with a more misguided premise than that at the heart of Christopher Robin. Essentially a blend of Atonement and Hook, this movie is every bit as awful as that queasy concoction sounds. The film begins with a dreary summary of Christopher Robin’s post-Pooh life, including, but not limited to, losing his father, watching people die on the battlefield, and neglecting his family so he can work harder at a luggage factory. Needless to say, at this point most of the children in the audience had started loudly asking their parents if they could maybe go home and have an early bedtime. By the time Winnie the Pooh reenters Christopher’s life at approximately the 900 minute mark I was debating an early bedtime as well. Pooh is once again gamely portrayed by the legendary Jim Cummings but the small amounts of humour he injects into the movie only serve to highlight how miserable the majority of it is.

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee is one of my favourite filmmakers, though I still have some catching up to do on his filmography. Do the Right Thing is a strong contender for the best film ever made, and Malcolm X is a full-on masterpiece. BlacKkKlansman isn’t quite on that level, but I think it’s every bit as good as Inside Man or 25th Hour. It features a bit too much of Lee’s trademark excess, but for every flourish that took me out of the movie (a scene involving two characters discussing blaxploitation films is exceptionally jarring), there’s another that simply blew me away with its audacity. There’s a sequence where Lee takes a filmmaking technique pioneered by D.W. Griffith in the horrifically racist The Birth of a Nation, and uses it to highlight the difference between black and white radical organizations. New York Times, take note.

The film tells the sort-of-true story of black police officer Ron Stallworth who posed as a white man on the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. As a police procedural the film is solid, but as an examination of race in America it’s a knockout. Lee doesn’t shy away from police racism and brutality, and for every victory Stallworth and his team achieve, there is devastating defeat. The final minutes of BlacKkKlansman will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

Stallworth is played by John David Washington and he makes for a terrific lead. He’s charismatic, vulnerable, and funny – expect an Oscar nomination. His partner is played by Adam Driver, one of the best actors working today, and he’s in full Driver mode here. His character poses as Stallworth when he has to meet the Klan face to face, and Driver does an incredible job acting like he’s acting. Laura Harrier plays the leader of Colorado College’s Black Student Union, and her and Stallworth strike up a relationship marred slightly by him lying to her about being a cop who tried to infiltrate her organization. Rounding out the cast is Topher Grace giving his best performance as friendly mega-racist David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK. Lee could not have picked a better actor to embody Duke’s putrid affability.

If you can’t tell from the amount of space I’ve devoted to it, BlacKkKlansman is my favourite film of the summer, and maybe the year. Highly, highly recommended.

Crazy Rich Asians

At its best, Crazy Rich Asians is a top notch romance. Constance Wu gives a star-making performance as Rachel Chu, a woman struggling with love, family, and identity, and when the film focuses on these aspects it’s wonderful. Unfortunately there are also a great deal of jokes that don’t land, disturbing amounts of wealth fetishization, and a disastrous subplot that serves only to set up an inevitable sequel. Michelle Yeoh plays a supremely worthy foe to Rachel in the form of her future mother-in-law, and can say as much with her eyes as most actors can with every tool at their disposal. Every scene with her and Rachel is impossible not to enjoy. The men in the film are largely forgettable, though Ken Jeong does get off a few good one-liners, Awkwafina leans into her usual shtick, and Jon M. Chu does a serviceable job directing, though he often seems more interested in filming the excesses of the rich than the rich themselves. Basically, it’s a rom-com – good stuff, bad stuff, occasionally troubling moral implications, all blended into a surprisingly enjoyable cocktail.

Searching

Our rapidly advancing technology has been a challenge for the thriller genre. Entire plots can now be solved with a phone call and tense scenes at libraries have been replaced by slightly less tense scenes of the protagonist bringing up Bing.com and carefully typing in the words “Northfield Killer.” Enter Searching, a thriller that not only embraces technology, but weaves it into every facet of it’s storytelling. The entirety of the film plays out on screens – laptops and phones primarily – and what could feel like a stunt in lesser hands never does here. Like all great “gimmick” films – Boyhood and The Blair Witch Project come to mind – the movie convinces us that there was simply no other way to tell this tale. John Cho gives a terrific performance as a father searching for his missing daughter in a maze of text messages, Facebook posts, and chat rooms. I don’t throw around the word “Hitchcockian” lightly, but this genuinely feels like the kind of experiment the Master of Suspense would rise to, and likely execute just as well.

And with that, the summer comes to a close. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good one. Now excuse me while I go decide what horror movie to watch, because it’s officially scary movie season! 

PS: as promised, here are the links to the rest of my summer reviews:

Avengers: Infinity War

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Deadpool 2

Hereditary

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Incredibles 2

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Eighth Grade

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Top Five Netflix Original Movies

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Netflix original TV shows are a fairly safe bet, as are their comedy specials (if you haven’t seen Nanette yet, stop reading this and go remedy that). Their original movies, on the other hand, tend to conjure vague recollections of Will Smith yelling at orcs and Adam Sandler being racist. Just in 2018 we had: The Cloverfield Paradox, notable for being released with no warning as a kind of surprise attack on unsuspecting viewers, Mute, a movie that imagines a future where nothing interesting ever happens, The Kissing Booth, a rom-com with neither rom nor com, and A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the rare film that is completely honest with the viewer up front.

It’s a minefield out there, so I’ve created this helpful guide to five movies that won’t make you want to cancel your subscription and bury your TV:

5 – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

The film that inspired me to write this article. After getting burned over and over again this year, I finally stumbled across something not just good, but great. Based on a novel by Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before takes tropes we’ve seen in romantic comedies, and injects them with a freshness and warmth that is sorely lacking in most. Every character is absurdly likeable, but Lana Condor steals the show as the protagonist Lara Jean. When her little sister (played by the almost-as-lovable Anna Cathcart) mails all the love letters Lara Jean never intended to send, she has to confront the feelings she’s cocooned in the safety of her imagination. The film is optimistic without being schmaltzy, funny without a hint of irony, and smart without taking itself too seriously. Han clearly remembers what it was like being a teenager, and writer Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson have adapted her book into one of the most delightful teen movies I’ve seen in years. Be sure to watch through the credits!

4 – Gerald’s Game

I may be in the minority here but I find the supernatural to be the least interesting thing in Stephen King books. Give me The Body over It any day, because when King is at his best he’s letting his characters, rather than his monsters, do the work. There’s a hint of the paranormal in Gerald’s Game, but this adaptation expertly captures the essence of what has made King such an enduring literary voice: characters. There are only two here, and one is mostly in the head of another, but the film is never anything less than compulsively watchable. It’s got a plot as urban legend you can get – a handcuff sex game goes horribly wrong – yet King uses this framework to explore some of the most mature themes of his career. Carla Gugino turns in her best performance yet, as Jessie, a woman trapped both figuratively and literally by the men in her life. It’s a story about the longing for freedom, and the sacrifices that have to made to achieve it; and what sacrifices! There’s a shot late in the film that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and the way everyone involved with the film builds to it is something you simply have to see to believe.

3 – 13th

Ava DuVernay follows up her magnificent Selma with a documentary that exposes just how racially biased the United States prison system is. The title comes from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The key words here are “except as punishment for a crime” and 13th makes a case impossible to ignore that slavery still exists in the USA. DuVernay is an immensely skilled filmmaker, and her ability to work in both narrative and documentary filmmaking with equal proficiency is staggering. 13th filled me with a kind of rage impossible to describe in words – a hopeless, hollow anger that can’t be forgotten, even two years removed from watching the film. This should be required viewing in every high school in North America.

2 – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

It’s hard to believe that the Sandler of Punch Drunk Love and Funny People is the same person who who played both Jack and Jill. Perhaps he’s an Andy Kaufman level genius who delights in torturing his audience, or maybe he just likes to go on vacations with his friends and get paid millions of dollars to do so. Either way, my familiarity with Bizzaro Sandler can only enhance my appreciation for the real deal, and in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, he’s as good as he’s ever been. Here he plays the son of a semi-successful sculptor, who moves back in with his dad after separating from his wife. What follows is a complex, hilarious, and frequently moving examination of how families grow apart, and, occasionally, come back together. Broken into a series of vignettes, the film’s literary sensibility evokes the artistic aspirations, and failures, of Sandler’s Danny and Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz. Frequent Baumbach collaborator Ben Stiller shows up as Danny’s wealth manager brother, and all three men’s cycle of failed relationships, blame, and resentment is approached with the kind of realism and comic observations that Baumbach can do better than almost anyone else.

1 – Okja

Every once and a while a director shows up whose understanding of film language is so complete that every frame of their films seems to be exactly as they want it to be. So it is with Bong Joon-ho, an artist of such perfectionism that each film he makes exists as a kind of self-contained work so airtight and precise they would be intimidating if they didn’t have such an enormous heart.

Okja is a modern day fable that casts Tilda Swinton as the wicked witch, Ahn Seo-hyun as the child, and an extraordinary CGI creation as her animal friend. Seo-hyun’s Mija embarks on an epic journey to save her super pig Okja from certain death at the hands of Swinton’s sickeningly sweet CEO Lucy Mirando. Okja is a film that forces viewers to confront their own relationship with the meat industry, yet it is so much more than just that. It’s a supremely confident work, by turns funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring, by one of our very best filmmakers. Featuring fascinating supporting roles from Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, Okja is movie making at its best – fluid, poetic, and achingly empathetic.

Honorable Mention – i don’t feel at home in this world anymore

I just had to include this one. Macon Blair’s debut film is a wonderfully original dark comedy about a woman who’s finally had been pushed too far. Melanie Lynskey delivers another powerhouse performance, and Elijah Wood has a ton of fun playing her more-than-slightly unhinged neighbour. I’ve been a fan of Lynskey since I first saw her in Peter Jackson’s masterful Heavenly Creatures; here she mixes that sullen anger with her usual compassion, resulting in a fascinatingly uncertain protagonist who I cheered for from start to finish. Blair clearly learned a lot working with Jeremy Saulnier on Blue Ruin and Green Room and this film is unafraid of depicting violence in all its ugliness. And like those movies, the reason the brutality hits so hard is because we love the characters so much.

So there you have it, five movies (and one bonus!) that will always be on Netflix, and are most definitely worth watching. I didn’t notice until just now, but only one of the above movies has a male lead, and all were advertised by Netflix just as heavily as The Ridiculous 6. For better and for worse, this company is willing to give a diverse group of filmmakers free reign to do whatever the hell they want. Sometimes you get Mute, and sometimes you get Okja. And for that reason, though it will surely mean watching some pretty rough stuff, I’ll keep hitting play on Netflix originals.

I should also point out that I haven’t yet seen Mudbound but I’ve heard from a great deal of people I trust that it’s the best thing Netflix has ever made. And, seriously, watch Nanette.

Eighth Grade Review

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As a horror fan, I’m always looking for that truly terrifying experience – sinking lower and lower into my seat, hands clutching the arm rests, whispering “make it stop” over and over again. No, I didn’t accidentally mistitle my review for The Nun – this is a review of Eighth Grade, the first feature from Bo Burnham, and the scariest movie of the year.

Eighth Grade follows protagonist Kayla’s final week of middle school, and it does so with such unflinching honesty that I had to watch entire scenes through my fingers. Take a sequence where Kayla is invited to a popular girl’s birthday party…by the popular girl’s mom, who really wants to hang out with Kayla’s dad. Kayla’s dad, Mark, can’t make it, but he encourages his introverted daughter to go and try to make some friends. The entire sequence plays out in excruciating detail, but the scene that made me debate leaving the theatre entirely was when it was time to open birthday presents. Watching the popular girl open perfect gift after perfect gift, and waiting for her to unwrap Kayla’s so closely mirrored experiences I’ve had that I wasn’t sure if I was watching a movie or just having a bad dream.

Bo Burnham is one of my favourite comedians. His special, what., is a brilliant piece of performance art that expertly weaves bizarre gags with achingly personal revelations. With Eighth Grade he leans much more heavily into the latter territory, to great effect. Burnham got his start as a YouTube sensation, so it’s no accident that Eighth Grade is one of the few movies out there that actually understands the internet. Kayla’s passion is making inspirational YouTube videos, which usually hover between zero and two views apiece. The film uses these videos as a way of tracking Kayla’s character arc, but instead of narrative shortcuts, these provide a fascinating look at the way Kayla desperately wishes herself to be seen and the nature of internet performance.

The film occasionally leans too heavily into jarring explosions of music, but that is the only complaint I could possibly level at Eighth Grade. Burnham’s script is airtight, with nary a wasted moment or false beat to be found. There is some comedy, but it is almost always used as much needed relief, and never feels out of step with the world that Burnham so meticulously creates.

None of this would work without Elsie Fisher, the actor playing Kayla. I haven’t seen her in anything else, which only serves to enhance the realism of her performance. She portrays Kayla with a fearlessness that is rarely seen on screen, especially in young actors. She dives so deeply into her character’s ticks and anxieties that I kept having to remind myself, “it’s just a movie.” I haven’t seen a better performance all year. Josh Hamilton more than holds his own as Mark, Kayla’s loving, painfully uncool Dad. The relationship between the two culminates in a scene so cathartic and true that the agonizing tension I’d been feeling for an hour and a half suddenly evaporated and I immediately burst into tears. It’s rare that a movie has the courage to put an audience through the ringer as much as Eighth Grade, but as that scene demonstrates the results can pay off in spades. It’s one of the very best movies of the year.

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies Review

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I am officially sick of superhero movies. A few weeks ago I watched Ant-Man and the Wasp with the kind of grim determination one usually reserves for assembling furniture. As I left the theatre every mild joke and barely coherent action scene vanished from my brain, as, truth be told, most superhero movies do.

Enter the Teen Titans. Specifically Teen Titans GO!, a deliciously bonkers TV cartoon that serves up demented superhero stories in jam-packed ten minute servings. This is one of those shows that feels like it was created with little to no adult supervision; for example there’s an episode solely devoted to Robin teaching the rest of the Teen Titans about building equity. Another sees Beast Boy, who can turn into any animal, turning into an adult man, and discovering the horrors of having a job.

The Teen Titans consist of Robin (who we all know), Cyborg (who anyone subjected to Justice League kind of knows), and Raven, Starfire, and Beast Boy (known only by those well versed in DC comics). They are the lowest of low-rent superteams, which stands as a direct refutation of Marvel’s everyone-is-awesome philosophy and DC’s everyone-is-sad mantra. The Teen Titans are usually more interested in dropping sick rhymes than fighting evil, and when they do go up against a big bad it’s often purely for personal gain.

As much as I love the Titans, I was a little skeptical that directors Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath (who also co-wrote) could stretch ten minute shorts into a 90 minute feature. I needn’t have worried – this movie works like gangbusters from the opening shot to its end credits scene. It’s funnier and more inventive than Deadpool, more coherent than Infinity War, and, yes, darker than everything the DC Extended Universe has yet offered us. Seriously, there’s a sequence involving going back in time that is so deranged I genuinely have no idea how it ended up in a kids movie – it’s wonderful.

The plot in brief: The Teen Titans head to the theatre to watch the new Batman movie, Batman Again. The director (voiced by Kristen Bell) introduces the film as well as the hundreds of other superhero movies in the works. Every hero from Atom to Night Owl is getting a movie – everyone except for Robin that is. The team suggests that what they need to secure a feature film is an arch-nemesis, so that’s what they set out to find. From here, the movie bounces from one unhinged set piece to another – from parodies of the Lion King, to an 80s power ballad, to the aforementioned time travel on sweet timecycles powered by radness.

If you, like I, are getting a bit rundown on superheroes, Teen Titans GO! To the Movies is just what the doctor ordered. DC and Marvel are skewered with equal mercilessness, but what deals the biggest blow to each franchise is how little regard the Teen Titans have for traditional superhero movie plot structure. While Deadpool bafflingly insists on plodding through the expected beats, this movie effortlessly rockets along with Robin’s surprisingly engaging arc as the only real tether.

Sadly it looks like this movie has already left most theatres, but I recommend watching it on VOD as soon as humanly possible. If you’re only going to see one superhero movie this year, watch Black Panther. But if you’re going to see two…Teen Titans are the heroes you deserve.

 

Mission: Impossible Review

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Have you seen the Mission: Impossible – Fallout trailer? And watched that crazy featurette where Tom Cruise risks his life, over and over again, for our entertainment? If the answer is yes, you’re probably wondering, “Where can I get more high-octane Mission: Impossible action before Fallout hits theatres?” Well, did you know that there are FIVE other Mission: Impossible movies that you could watch right now?! Probably. But if you haven’t watched them in a while, they really are worth your time. The entire series is an absolute blast, and my favourite YouTuber, Patrick Willems, has a great rundown of how great they are:

Seriously, this franchise rules. But something that I hear more often than I’d expect is that “It only really gets good with the third one.” Now don’t get me wrong; I love M:I-3. But I think saying that that’s where the series gets good is ignoring one very important fact: the original Mission: Impossible is a fantastic movie. It’s a twisty, paranoid thriller directed with Brian De Palma’s trademark precision, and features one of the series’ most suspenseful setpieces. It’s not quite Rogue Nation good, but if pressed I’d probably have to say that it’s my second favourite of the franchise.

The movie begins with an elaborate sequence, showcasing the IMF team working together to complete one of their impossible missions. SPOILER ALERT – within about fifteen minutes the entire team is dead, save for Tom Cruise AKA Ethan Hunt. The scene works perfectly for two reasons: 1) as mentioned before, we get the pleasure of seeing a bunch of pros pull off a job in a really clever way. There are disguises, gadgets, and crazy 90s hacking devices, and De Palma is a master of showing us where everyone is in relation to everyone else. And then we get to 2) where everything goes to hell and everyone gets killed in fairly shocking ways (seriously, Emilio Estevez gets his face crushed by a freakin’ elevator). Suddenly everything goes from beautiful meticulousness to absolute chaos, and we see it all from the point of view of Cruise, who completely sells the horror of what he’s witnessing.

From here we get some really fun man-on-the-run stuff, before Ethan is able to scrape together a new team (it’s Ving Rhames and Leon the Professional!) and try to clear his name. We get the famous sequence where Cruise is lowered into a room, where literally anything will trigger an alarm – body heat, sound, and, of course, touching the floor. There’s an amazing reveal of who the bad guy is that almost has to be seen twice to fully comprehend. The finale takes place in, and on, a speeding train, and, though it isn’t the stunt show the series would evolve into, it’s still an absolutely incredible action scene. Danny Elfman’s score is wonderful – every subsequent film in the series would be indebted to it – and the editing by Paul Hirsch (of Star Wars fame) is top notch.

I would of course recommend watching all the Mission: Impossible movies before Fallout (well, maybe you could skip M:I-2) but if you don’t have the time for that, I would seriously consider giving this one a try, especially if you haven’t seen it. It’s a far cry from the smorgasbord of delights the series would become, but there’s a heck of a lot to love.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Review

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I’ve gone on record multiple times saying how much I dislike Jurassic World. It’s a mess of a movie (which isn’t unusual for a Jurassic Park sequel), but it’s also shockingly misogynistic and cruel, actively hates itself, and features the ugliest special effects of any Jurassic film. It’s just the worst.

Needless to say, I didn’t go into Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with high expectations. New-to-the-franchise director J. A. Bayona was pretty much the only thing that got me to fork over 1,500 SCENE points and awkwardly place 3D glasses over my regular ones. Two hours later I was watching the credits roll with a big grin on my face, realizing that for the first time since The Lost World I’d enjoyed a Jurassic Park movie.

The sexism and mean-spiritedness are gone, and criticisms of corporate greed, which came off as pure self-loathing in Jurassic World, actually have some resonance here. This is the first film of the series to feature entirely villainous characters, and Toby Jones has a great time chewing the scenery as a Trump-like sleazeball who auctions off dinosaurs to cartoonishly evil billionaires. Chris Pratt is significantly less insufferable this time around, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, who was treated so horribly in the first one, is now every bit the hero that Pratt is. Zach and Gray, the truly awful kids from Jurassic World, are nowhere to be seen, and are replaced by Isabella Sermon giving a decent performance as a strange British child. Ted Levine gives a fun, Ted Levine-y performance, and Jeff Goldblum’s legendary Dr. Ian Malcolm has a line that made me quietly pump my fist and whisper “Yes.”

The special effects are a mostly excellent blend of practical and CG, and Bayona knows how to utilize them much better than Colin Trevorrow did in the previous film. He directs with the same stylish flair that elevated The Orphanage and A Monster Calls, and turns what could have been another creaky franchise entry into something more. The film’s biggest weakness is the script, which, unsurprisingly, was co-written by Colin Trevorrow. It actually works quite well from a plot perspective, but mostly fails when it comes to presenting main characters that are anything more than objects to get chased by dinosaurs. Luckily the dinosaur chasing is incredibly entertaining, and the film leaps from set piece to set piece with enough gusto that I was never all that put off by the lack of compelling protagonists.

The story this time around sees Howard’s Claire heading back to the island to rescue the dinosaurs before a newly re-active volcano wipes them out. She brings Owen along for this terrible idea because he loves a velociraptor on the island named Blue – a subplot that I think works a bit better this time around. They bring with them a tech wiz played by Justice Smith, and a dino-veterinarian played by Daniella Pineda, who has apparently never even seen a real dinosaur, let alone operated on one; as I said before, not a great script. Based on the rest of the series, I was expecting the entire movie to take place on Isla Nublar, but without spoiling too much, we don’t actually spend much time in a familiar setting. The entire second half of the film shifts gears fairly effortlessly into a Gothic horror inspired scare-fest that takes the franchise somewhere completely new, and then leaves it there, leaving me legitimately excited for the next entry.

Which I’m just learning is going to be directed by Trevorrow again.

Goddammit.

Anyways, Fallen Kingdom is a really entertaining summer blockbuster that demands little from the audience except a willingness to come along for the ride. Bayona’s horror background is very much on display, and this movie makes the dinosaurs scarier than they have been since Spielberg was directing. You won’t care much about the characters, but watching them escape increasingly dire situations, all staged with inventive and suspenseful camera work and editing, and set to a bombastic score by Michael Giacchino, is some of the most fun I’ve had with a blockbuster all year.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Review

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When I’m feeling down, there’s a video on YouTube that I like to watch. It’s Fred Rogers AKA Mr. Rogers speaking before the U.S Senate Subcommittee on Communication, asking them to reject Nixon’s proposal to slash funding for public television. Here, he explains exactly what he thinks his program offers:

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’”

Ok, you just have to watch the video; it’s so great. Here it is:

Now that we’ve all had a good cry, can we acknowledge that something pretty magical happened there? I can hardly think of a more perfect example of kindness winning out over cynicism than the chairman of the subcommittee, Senator John Pastore, granting PBS the $20 million they were asking for before presumably standing up, stepping into the afternoon sun, and dancing off down the street.

This scene is shown in the wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but in the context of the film, and the year 2018, that feeling of pure happiness I get watching the clip on YouTube becomes mixed with a much more sobering sentiment: what did that $20 million really buy?

This isn’t to imply Mr. Rogers wasted the money – good lord, no. As the documentary shows, Fred Rogers was a legitimately amazing human being. He poured his soul into his art, and every episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood showcases the work of a kind, thoughtful, and heart-wrenchingly genuine man. My question is, “What did we do with the money?”, and when I see where we’re at right now, I’m worried the answer may be, “Not a whole lot.”

But let’s let that darkness be for a bit, and talk about what a terrific movie this is. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a relentlessly engaging portrait of a man’s life, one that is unafraid to show us Mr. Rogers at his most vulnerable, his most doubtful, and his most misguided. Rogers’ unwillingness to let François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, come out as gay, reminds us that even the best of us can be completely wrong sometimes. As Clemmons reveals in interviews, Rogers was personally accepting of his sexuality, and his willingness to put a black man on television in the 60s, and have him play a police officer no less, displayed a lot of courage. Regardless, the fact that the documentary addresses and gives adequate time to this less-than-flattering detail about Mr. Rogers’ life is to be commended.

There are moments in the film that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. There’s a brilliant montage of clips showing how willing Mr. Rogers was to embrace slowness on TV – watching a timer count down a full minute, feeding fish, and of course, changing both his sweater and his shoes in every single episode. There are also some great anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went on, and a delightful clip of Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Rogers send-up, Mr. Robinson.

And of course, the film has its share of moments that are purely heartwarming. Mr. Rogers talking with Jeff Erlanger, about his life and why he uses a wheelchair, and then singing It’s You I Like with him may be the most I’ve ever cried in a theatre. Erlanger would go on to become an advocate and activist for disability rights, and he presented when Mr. Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. That’s another video you have to watch:

Fred Rogers believed that everyone deserved to be treated with love and respect. Everyone. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “We didn’t deserve him,” but that’s exactly the kind of thinking that Mr. Rogers spent his entire life peacefully opposing. To go back to what I was saying earlier, this movie really does make you wonder if Mr. Rogers’ philosophy worked. He would often try to explain the terrible things that go on in the world, in ways children could understand, but towards the end of his life, when he was asked to return to television to address the nation after 9/11, even he was having his doubts. No matter what he did, or how much kindness he broadcast to the world, terrible things keep happening.

When I go online, something I’ve been trying to avoid as much as possible lately, I see so much anger from every possible side that I genuinely wonder if there’s any coming back from this. Mr. Rogers spent his life trying to be kind, trying to spread kindness as far as he possibly could…and now he’s gone. And when the documentary shows footage of people protesting his funeral, forcing their kids to hold up signs saying “God Hates Mr. Rogers” because of how accepting he was, something in me broke a little bit. Our anger at the world doesn’t end with everything magically being fixed – it ends with everything inevitably being broken.

But then the documentary does something amazing. It pulls back, and spends a full minute (Mr. Rogers loved his full minutes) watching every person who was interviewed think about someone who helped them become who they are today, something Mr. Rogers would often encourage people to do. This minute also lets the audience think about those people who inspired us, who showed us love, and took care of us even when we thought we didn’t need it. It’s not a showy moment, but it’s one of the most powerful examples of healing I’ve ever seen on screen. Because we weren’t thinking of people at their worst; we were thinking of them at their absolute best. We were thinking of them at their Mr. Rogers. I’ve heard a million arguments as to why treating people with pure love won’t solve anything, but I just don’t buy it – and this movie doesn’t either. This is a movie that leaves you drained in the best possible way, that shows the world in all it’s beauty and ugliness, and then begs you to not give up on it. We deserved Mr. Rogers – we deserve Mr. Rogers.